The Summer of Rattlesnakes: I Learn that Fear is a Method

A rattlesnake lived under our front porch that summer on the mountain in Temecula.  We had to look before we stepped onto the stones, which held a giant prickly pear and enough heat by nine in the morning to draw the snake to bask.  The presence and profusion of rattlesnakes on the mountain made me more alert than usual. R. and I lived together for the first time then;  it was my first trip to California, my first earthquake.  Life felt new, as if in coming here I’d become a person I didn’t recognize yet. As if, like a snake, I’d shed an old skin and left my husk in the loud oak leaves. I felt new-skinned, dangerous.

So much to fear on the mountain – fire, mainly. In fact, the whole place went up in flames a few years ago.  Also: snakes. Snakes on the stones, in the woods, blending with the leaves, rattling, flowing like thin rivers into the tule pond where we bathed. The idea of being struck by a rattlesnake while I swam in deep water summed up all my fears – and that summer I swam every day.  I learned that fear is a form of adrenaline, that <b>fear is a method</b>.

 

Be Bad, Do Good

I found twenty dollars blowing on the downhill slope of Green Street into Chinatown and North Beach on a Saturday night, folded tight for a night out on the town, still warm, deliciously anonymous.  We spent it immediately, on one of those chopped salads at Rose Pistola and that grilled squid they do with the blackened, smoky tentacles in a vinaigrette. That was the moment my luck changed from bad to medium. The city gave something freely, blew it my way for fun.  A chilly, disembodied finger beckoned.  Be a thief, receive a gift.  Be bad. Do good.

Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series: An interview with Carolyn Cooke By Nancy Au

Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution was listed among the best novels of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle and The New Yorker Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in AGNI, The Paris Review, and two volumes each of Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. These stories were collected in The Bostons, which won the PEN/Bingham Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

1.) In Daughters of the Revolution, your character Madeleine is described as an expert at “coaxing nature to an unnatural intensity.” This reminds me of how a writer’s craft can lie in forming sentences with words that might not naturally go together to create a compelling emotion or image in readers’ minds. You do this so beautifully. What does your revision process look like to do so? How much work goes into reshaping individual sentences in your writing?

Carolyn Cooke: I appreciate what you suggest here:  that our job is to put together words that don’t “naturally go together.”  For me writing is like performance art of a solitary kind. You have material, and a shimmery idea or image.  But the hot moments happen while you’re blind. You can almost feel the parallel world running through your veins, coming out the ends of your fingers. Other times sentences lie there in a state of such pitiable crudeness you have to pound the keys like a bricklayer chopping old grout with a hammer.  Edwin Arlington Robinson spoke of the “ache to be sublime.”  I need experiences of the sublime every day.  It’s like an addiction:  spending hours trying to lose consciousness of ordinary life, waiting for the jolt of capturing something unsayable.

2.) Your character, Carole, is an artist, a gifted painter who “for years…worked only on painted heads…They looked like bowling balls, decapitations. They looked as if they had rolled there.” This image makes me wonder if you are also a visual artist. How do these types of images come into your mind? Do you have suggestions for writers to likewise invigorate their scenes?

Carolyn: My ambition is to write the way Lucian Freud painted. Somebody said that being painted by Freud was like being “flayed alive.” His family sat for him anyway. I would have, too.  There’s a brutal quality of attention in Freud’s work that feels almost indistinguishable from love. This has to do with the time it takes to really see people who matter to us – even if they’re characters in a novel. It isn’t a trick of paint or of language. Daughters was influenced by two Chicago painters:  Judith Raphael, who paints pubescent girls in attitudes borrowed from heroic Roman sculpture, and Susanna Coffey, who for many years painted only her own head – but many, many versions. I’m not a visual artist, but seek out friends who are. The problems of writers interestingly resemble the problems of painters and performance artists and choreographers. A line like “Build up the color from white” could have been a prompt for Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

3.) You have some of the best, most interesting names for characters. What is your process like in selecting first names like “God” (short for Goddard), and last names like Rebozos? Do you have a personal “rule” that you stick to when naming characters?

Carolyn: My mother was delivered by a man named Coffin. New England is filled with people who go by interesting names – Bun, Shirty, Mucker, Squeak. Look at the early witch hunters – Cotton and Increase Mather. As I hammered away at my novel, my God and Carol Faust enacting their gendered drama, Lawrence Summers got thrown out of Harvard for a line of dialogue that might have come from my own first draft  – and Drew Faust became president of Harvard! Names matter, but I resist trying to create a semblance of the ordinary. Ordinary life isn’t really my subject.

4.) The idea of individuality and personhood — who we believe ourselves to be — seems to be a theme in your novel. For example, when Mrs. Graves helps to type another character’s obituary (I won’t reveal who’s obituary!), she is overcome with a sense of control and closeness to that person. She could edit the obituary as she saw fit, “feeling she knew him better than anyone.” I took this to mean that we are not in control of our own identity, that others see us (and will remember us after death) as they want to. Can you talk about that? What are other themes that you find yourself exploring?

Carolyn: Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that “If my father had lived to be ninety his life would have ended mine.”  The role of women – especially wives and daughters – in mopping up the literary lives of men, of typing up the remnants as a means of self-expression and because it’s expected, is too provoking to thump on here.  Sexuality and mortality are compelling themes, too.

5.) What would I find on your writing desk right now if I could glimpse it, and what would that tell me about the crafting of Daughters of the Revolution?

Carolyn: I’ve now lived in Northern California for over 20 years – and feel liberated to shift focus from the world of Daughters. Right now my desk is piled up with reading about technology and identity – Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and a couple of books by Ellen Ullman: Close to the Machine about her life as an early software engineer and her new novel, By Blood, about adoption, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, eavesdropping, sexuality, and San Francisco in the 1970s. Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man – incredibly sexy, scary work. Wilson spontaneously creates prose poems — and records them on his iPhone while running. He’s literally an insight machine. Justin Torres’s We The Animals – because I’m about to meet him at Why There Are Words!  I have a big, messy scribbled-over copy of my forthcoming collection of short stories, Amor & Psycho, and eight or ten small yellow lined pads filled with urgent matter – images, dreams, stolen dialogue, lists of books, essential lines. Half the time I can’t even read the words. Sometimes misreading is useful.  Maybe the point is just being surrounded by writing, by the mess and process of it.

Come out and hear Carolyn Cooke — and Justin Torres! — June 14.

What Does it Mean to “Lose Work”?

Once, a famous public intellectual/writer and her lover from Chicago came to visit in California. In preparation, I took all the paper trash to my office (a remote cabin) to burn in the woodstove. We had a wonderful vinous evening, and in the morning took a walk around our property.  Overnight, my writing studio had caught fire;  the windows had gone black. Of course I had my laptop, my hard drive, so it was hard to know exactly what was lost, or just charred, damaged, smoky, ruined. I had always saved everything – handwritten stuff, edited stuff, embarrassing stuff, essential stuff, prima materia, evidence. The famous public intellectual entered my smoldering den and took in the scene.  “So you’ve lost all your early work,” she said. “Do you care?”

A year or so later I published my first book.

 

 

The Rumpus Interview: Susan Zakin in Conversation with Carolyn Cooke

In Carolyn Cooke’s recent novel, Daughters of the Revolution, Cooke set the mark of her anger, along with her exquisite sentences, on the ultimate crucible of American male power. The book drew opposing reactions from critical circles. In The San Francisco Chronicle, Susanna Sonnenberg literally ordered people to read Daughters of the Revolution, calling it “ferocious” and “astonishing.” Cooke, she wrote, “can reinvent the known with imagery so fine and excruciating it feels like a dare.” But Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post blasted Cooke’s novel, comparing it unfavorably to the 1964 Louis Auchincloss novel The Rector of Justin, and accused Cooke of ham-fisted political correctness.

The novel’s inciting incident is a boating accident in the early 1960s that kills a young father while sparing his wealthy companion. Although the novel’s action spans decades, it never reaches beyond the geographic confines of New England and New York. Yet Daughters of the Revolution’s epiphanic ending calls down all the tragedy of the North and South. We recently spoke at her home in northern California.

***

The Rumpus: When I read your short story collection, The Bostons, I had a sensory hit of New England: the old floorboards, the smell of summer. But you’ve been living on the north coast of California for quite a while now. Is California culture where the novel’s surreal sensibility comes from?

Carolyn Cooke: Hawthorne is pretty surreal. Most New England writers are echoing a little bit of Hawthorne’s surrealism. Someone in a negative review called my book an example of hysterical realism. He cited me along with Zadie Smith and some other writers I really respect. It was a negative review, but great company. The review was meant to be negative, but I liked the description. I understand the impulse to not be a realist. I don’t think I am fundamentally a realist even though I’m interested in reality, in texture,  in commentary, in the meta story. Realism can be tedious. I’ m not interested in writing it.

Rumpus: It’s laborious.

Cooke: I have a hard time having characters pour milk in their coffee. I’m pleased when people say that it’s not quite in a realist tradition.

Rumpus: In terms of place, Boston is the epicenter of the American class system, isn’t it? Louis Auchincloss and Ward Just were categorical in their descriptions of Boston.

Cooke: It used to be. That was one of the differences I noticed when I came to California. In New England, it was so hard for people to move beyond cultural assumptions that people made because you were black, or you were a woman, or you lived in a certain neighborhood or you were poor.

Rumpus: And you were poor.

Cooke: (hesitates) My mother and I were poor, yeah. She was a substitute teacher for most of my childhood. A single parent.

Rumpus: Where did you live?

Cooke: We lived in a number of places. We sometimes housesat for people. We lived in Newton, Massachusetts most of the time when I was very young. When I was 10 we moved to Bar Harbor, Maine. My mother’s father was a Swedish immigrant who built houses there. He built her a house based on a design she made in a home ec class in eighth grade. She still lives there. It’s a fabulous house. It has a tower. It’s very whimsical.

Rumpus: Daughters of the Revolution focuses on a specific period of time in a specific place, when New England prep schools were taking cautious steps toward integration and co-education. Around the same time, Boston was in the throes of a violent controversy over school busing. The violence in South Boston was after your moved to Maine, wasn’t it?

Cooke: Yes, but I was aware of it. Initially I wanted to write a book about busing.

Rumpus: I can see how that idea morphed into Carole, the African-American girl who is admitted to the boys’ prep school by mistake. It’s remarkable how much the discussion of school integration has changed, isn’t it? We seem to have given up on integration in the schools. Now we talk about identity, which is fine, but I wonder if the price we pay is further fragmentation of the polity. Do you think an obsession with race can blind us to issues of class? Is there a vacuum in the arts and the national debate when it comes to class?

Cooke: I’m really disturbed by the increasing emphasis at elite schools and elsewhere on meritocracy. You look at the Ivy League colleges, which are so racially and ethnically diverse, and yet so filled with wealthy, privileged kids from all over the world. It’s also true at the California state schools, increasingly, as the tuition goes up. It’s called “merit” and it means the kids whose parents are wealthy enough to get them the preparation they need to get into those schools. I’m fearful of a world that loves those who have merit and ignores those who don’t.

Rumpus: What’s the index of “merit”?

Cooke: Right, right. There’s a phenomenon of what my friend David Rothkopf calls the super class, and it’s international. This is who rules the world. They’re all colors and all creeds and it’s just as egalitarian as it could be, except they’re all the super people, the people who make the decisions, who run the corporations, who create the culture, who hold the money. The issue is no longer “Are people treated equally because of their background?” The issue is that most people aren’t treated equally and only a few people are.

Rumpus: The intensity of that comes through at the ending of your book. I was so angry after I finished that book, I was a total bitch for three days.

Cooke: Why, thank you! (laughs)

Rumpus: (laughs) The ending of the book, to me, was about global inequality. I don’t know if that was what you intended. This isn’t an historical book, it’s not a curiosity, it’s not limited to the 60s and 70s, or drawing a self-conscious parallel between an earlier time and ours. The surreal aspects of the book gave it a larger scope, I thought, without confusing the reader. Were you thinking about these larger kinds of inequality or was I projecting?

Cooke: We all have a different lens, or several lenses. You’ve spent a lot of time looking at the world through the lens of the environment. How does the environment get affected in a poor country? A colonized country? I’ve always seen the world through the lens of class.

Rumpus: My lens also tends to be political. The political novel gets a bad rap as being by definition didactic or second rate literature, but I wonder if there’s a new urgency now, with two wars going on and economic hard times that wasn’t there before? Are American writers are looking beyond the suburban cul de sac?

Cooke: Oh, yeah. I remember all these stories about men in some huge indescribable existential struggle. Just like anybody else, I read Philip Roth, and Updike, and Cheever, and Raymond Carver. Carver brought the class card to the table, but kind of relentlessly. And they’re very male, and they’re very much about their mortality, and the women are unreal. It was such a breath of air that there were people trying to tell weird, big stories from all around the world.

Rumpus: A few of those guys wrote great sex scenes. Richard Ford. That guy could make it new. Yours are very good, too. How do you write about sex?

Cooke: I think it’s hard, too. With Daughters of the Revolution, I wanted to write a book about the sexual revolution, and I realized after a certain point that I had to write about sex. I wanted to explore the history of bad sex.

Rumpus: That would be a great book title.

Cooke: I did it very diligently, the way I do everything. I had a certain amount of experience, which I brought to bear. (laughter) I think it’s of service to the book, even if you’re not a realist. Because the way they look at sex changes over time. Your characters, I mean.

Rumpus: So the actress does a nude scene if it’s artistically merited. Makes sense. I do see a common ground in your novel, despite its brevity, with the large canvas novels you’re referring to. What are you reading now?

Cooke: I’m reading nonfiction, because I’m interested in the intersection of sex and drugs and how drugs lubricated things in New England at a certain time. In fiction, I was just reading The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was thinking that there are such giant stories that people from Africa or India are telling. Adiga does such a great job at showing multiple facets of a country but also telling a Dostoevskian story about a criminal. It’s literary and character-based but also doing this hard work of illuminating culture and society, and looking into the present and the future.

In English, there haven’t been these giant stories that try to explain a nation, explain these huge historic events, at least recently. I think of young people coming up, and feeling there’s this huge obligation to tell stories that haven’t been told before. But in some sense that’s what every novel does. Every novel has the lens that grabs at you.

···
Susan Zakin is the author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement and editor of the anthology Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth. A fictionalized African prep school (“the Eton of West Africa”) plays a role in her forthcoming novel, The Afterlife of Victor Kamara. www.susanzakin.com

The Interpreter

Your book has a season. Mine was Summer. Daughters of the Revolution appeared in bookstores on June 6th. (Booksellers hold their copies back so your book can – shazam! – appear on the shelves on publication day, and begin the mad dash to be noticed.) Soon after this I went on the road from the Bay Area to Chicago, New York, New England and Los Angeles in the grand tradition, stopping in a new city every night or two, trying to lure friends (and their friends, and all our mutual Facebook friends and Twitter followers) into bookstores to a reading – and to buy the book. Touring is a shameless act of seduction: fun, humiliating, sexy – and (over time) a little grueling.

One day I drove from New York City to Concord, Massachusetts, through thunder, lightening and rain so torrential it actually held the windshield wipers in mid-arc. The Taconic Parkway was a muggy blur; I might have been driving down a water slide. In Concord I stayed at an inn dating from 1700 and drank a beer with an old friend and former editor from a pewter tankard once used by Paul Revere. (I may be making this up.) Concord is, of course, the birthplace of a Revolution – but not the sexual revolution described in somewhat relentless detail in my book.

The bookstore looked cozy – a port in the storm. But who would come out in such weather? The bookseller, of course. My friend/editor. The sister of someone in my writing group came; she lives just down the street. The mother of a former student appeared, nudged by her son who, because he lives in Africa, couldn’t attend. Two men came in together, and I was moved by the kindness of strangers. “Thank you for coming,” I confided – often a bad idea. “You’re the only people here I don’t know. I’m so glad you’re not just some long-lost cousins!”

“Actually,” said the older of the two men, “I am your mother’s cousin.”

Dickie!

What a strange object is your own book. It emerges into the marketplace as if it were an ordinary product, marked with its promise of quality control – what I have come to think of as the “wall of praise” that backs it up. Your sentences, ideas and images, the whole atmosphere and world you’ve created, are pitched and packaged (except in e-book form, where the print is detached from its platen and distilled into an essence, like vodka from a potato). Next thing, if you are lucky, you stand peering across the wild terrain of your id and ego into the faces of strangers – and the broadest swath of your ancient intimates. You open your book, which, in a sudden weird reversal, you are here to interpret and embody. You straighten up, find your voice, look them all in the eye, and pretend to read.

Chronicles of Sexual Revolution 2. Exploring the Psychic Playpen: A Conversation with Poet Brynn Saito

Interview by BRYNN SAITO, program coordinator for the Department of Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry

Carolyn Cooke is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Consciousness, and Creative Inquiry at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and author of Daughters of the Revolution, a novel to be published by Knopf/Doubleday on June 7, 2011. Her short story collection, “The Bostons,” was a winner of PEN/ Bingham Award for a first book and a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway. Her fiction has appeared in AGNI, The Paris Review, Ploughshares and in two volumes each of “Best American Short Stories” and “Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.” 

Your novel, Daughters of the Revolution, will be published on June 7. What is the novel about?

The novel begins with sexual revolutions in New England, the time of integration and busing and the beginning of co-education in previously all-male schools.

Yale became co-ed around 1969 and prestigious old prep schools in Boston began to admit girls around then. So many radical divides and challenges to the culture had surfaced—from the Vietnam War to the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and the introduction of the speculum as a tool of consciousness! The gritty atmosphere and sexual politics of the time impressed me. Of course, I was a kid.

What comes first for you in the writing process—the characters, a scene, a political movement you want to engage? How does the writing begin?

I recently borrowed a copy of that immense, gorgeous edition of Carl Jung’s Red Book and spent about a week reading it in bed. What an experience, to immobilize yourself before a big book – the record of a personal, psychotic process. Writing is always autobiographical in the sense that it comes from you and through you – but, as for Jung, it’s not necessarily autobiography. For me, story starts with language, sound; I start to hear something.

My first book came out exactly ten years ago. Ten years! And Daughters of the Revolution is a very slender book—it’s like a haiku of a novel. I also wrote a collection of stories in that time, called Amor and Psycho, which is coming out next year. So I procrastinated from the novel by writing the stories, which are about sex and angst. I write slowly and cut much, more like a poet than a novelist, maybe – always trying to make the words say more than they want to. The novel takes place over the course of 40 years, so a lot of time passes even though it’s very compressed.

To hear you say you write a like a poet makes a lot of sense to me.  Your writing is so emotionally and linguistically precise, and lyrical at the same time.

I don’t think anyone will confuse Daughters of the Revolution with poetry, but I did try to capture the tone of a period—from the early 1970s through the early years of the 21st century—and also how the tone changed, and how that shift was influenced by economic policies and social realities and changes in sexual politics. That’s really what interests me—the tonal feeling. Not plot so much.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Some people want to explore the psychic playpen; other people – artists and psychologists, for example – have to, they just can’t not. One of our students was just telling me about a parent, gravely ill, who is devastated because she has so much in her mind, in her soul, that she feels is going to be lost when she dies. I agree that’s an intolerable situation – to feel that you haven’t been able to say something out loud to the world that only you can say.

I relate to that. There’s the world in your mind and the urgency to get it out in order to be your most real self.

The world in your mind, exactly. It’s not fundamentally a matter of self-expression. It’s invention, creation – making something potentially better and stranger and more lasting than you are.

As an associate professor in the Institute’s Writing and Consciousness MFA program, what does “consciousness” mean to you?

Not every writer writes from an interest in consciousness; I’m not sure I think of myself that way. Some writers are more interested in storytelling, or plot, or pure abstraction, or ideas, or history. Many of our students have stories that they urgently want to tell that have some political or social dimension or point of view they feel hasn’t been captured in language before.

Consciousness is who you are, but it’s not autobiography – it’s not factual, or even knowable. It’s not self-conscious; it’s open to larger currents. It reveals you in relation to other human beings, the knowledge we share that is beyond geography or culture. The more particular and precise you become in certain kinds of writing, the more other people are able to see something that you maybe didn’t even know or intend, and say, Wow, that’s exactly how it is. My interest in consciousness isn’t really personal; it’s the way in which consciousness is shared.

That reminds me a line from a blog post of yours: “The job of the reporter is to give us facts and evidence, causes and effects. The job of the fiction writer is to refuse the simple story we thought we knew, to inscribe indelible marks on our soul.” So writing fiction is a different kind of truth-telling

Don’t you think poetry is that, too?

Yes.

I think that’s a real comfort to people who are starting to write: you don’t actually have to know much in advance. It’s probably better if you don’t. “Telling the truth” isn’t just saying what you think you already know, it’s when you’re writing with your hand as much as from your head and you start trying to corral the unsayable, and the words start to make patterns that you suddenly know how to read.

Do you have any rules and rituals as a writer?

The only rule is that I have to do it all the time. Within that, I’m free. I love what Julia Whitty said about living like a monk to keep the portal open. I don’t live like a monk, I live like a maniac, but I try to keep the portal (as I understand it) open and get to my desk before I really wake up. I try to write something before I get out of bed, or open my eyes.

Chronicles of Sexual Revolution 1: Sex, Cars and Aesthetics

Looking back, I owe the development of my adult aesthetic to my first boyfriend’s terrific taste in cars. In the years we dated I was so shy I never uttered his name – it was Billy – though we managed to find intimacy in other ways that are inextricably linked in my mind with a Ford Falcon coupe and a 1966 Morris Mini Cooper. My general awakening occurred in 1973, the year I became aware of Richard Nixon as a dramatic character, and the beginning (for me) of the special period known as the sexual revolution. I spent every day that summer babysitting a curly-headed child who napped through the numbing Watergate hearings, which I watched on the family’s black and white television while their retriever obsessively humped my leg. Mostly, I sympathized with the dog’s longing – his desperation, really. Evenings and weekends, Billy and I drove around the island where we lived, walked along the shore paths and on the beach, climbed the rocky granite mountains – and drove around in awkward silence, as I was too shy to speak.

Much more than any specific physical contact between us, I remember the feelings produced by Billy’s appearance at my house in his Ford Falcon or his Morris Mini. I remember my mother’s near-panic, a generalized condition having to do with roads, snow, boys, accidents. The thrill of seeing her eyes wide with a sort of terrified anticipation. The only thing she wasn’t worried about was sex. Copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Joy of Sex, and The Sensuous Woman by J stood stacked up on our living room coffee table next to a silver box of cigarettes. The tableau – sex books, cigarettes – looked composed, like some kind of organized suggestion. Or like homework.

Women my mother’s age were all going crazy with restlessness and envy, reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or else they were divorcing, changing everything. My mother, who was already single, had always driven big, round, hand-me-down cars from my nana – a 1955 Chevy and later a 1959 Nash Rambler. The cars came to us because they were too old to be reliable in the frigid New England winters. I remember the heavy sound of dead alternators, the wheeze of their flooded engines as I sat beside my mother on the long bench seat, beltless, almost weightless, my knee socks pulled up and my required dress pulled down to cover my knees, knobbed and white as frosted cupcakes. Our family cars were a testament to outdated values – roundness, stability, dim coloring, American-ness. My mother was trying to bust loose – to liberate herself from the constraints of the cold-war conservative patriarchal structures that oppressed her economically and socially. When she finally got tenure on the cusp of the Me Decade she bought her first new car, a brand-new orange Maverick with a spoiler and black racing stripes.

Gaddafi’s Official Outfits and Other Works of the Imagination

In the early years, while I tapped away every morning imagining that my novel would be finished soon, the editor of a local anarcho-syndicalist newspaper for which I sometimes wrote suffered from an interesting delusion. He believed that the writer Thomas Pynchon had been writing letters to his paper in the guise of a bag lady who lived under a bridge in Fort Bragg and drank in a bar called the Tip Top. Why did he think this? I don’t remember. The letters were funny, crazy, vivid. The editor found people who believed him, and even helped publish a scholarly, heavily-footnoted volume of the letters (and his own famously funny, vivid replies). The volume parsed every line of the letters for Pynchon lore; not surprisingly, the letters contained the seeds of other Pynchon novels, and references to Gravity’s Rainbow, V and Vineland abounded, all excruciatingly documented. Pynchon ended up having nothing to do with writing those letters to the paper. But the volume exists – made in equal parts of imagination and argument – an almost perfect work of fiction.

The truth turned out to be another story, revealed when the letter-writer murdered his wife – bludgeoned her to death and kept her maimed body in their cabin until it began to decompose. Days later the letter-writer drove his truck off a cliff, killing himself and causing further insult to his wife. The letter writer, the killer, turned out to have been a frustrated poet. The letters to the paper – and the scholarly work they inspired – represented the zenith of his literary career, and the work for which he will be remembered.

Even what we think of as “reality” is constructed by imagination. Look at Muammar Gaddafi’s official outfits. Look at a human heart, an eye. Tell me, tell me, where does fiction come from?

Egyptomaniac

Like many people all over the world this week, I’ve gorged myself on whatever information I can find about the people’s revolution in Egypt. I watch Al Jazeera English while listening in the background to CNN, scanning updates from the New York Times and the BBC, and following six or seven Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blogs. In the face of such relentless “connection,” who has time to read?

Writers constantly experiment to find how various shades of “meaning” can be conveyed by information and atmosphere, description and detail. Many of the narratives we (as writers and readers) value are not “informative” in a 24-hour cycle way; they speak to other urgencies, which in heated moments feel harder to articulate. What kinds of information and description best broadcast the “situation” on the ground? What kinds of detail evoke the atmosphere and context of the larger social-economic-cultural-historical picture?

Dare I mention – novels, essays, memoirs?

The late, great Cairo-raised Palestinian critic and public intellectual Edward Said, who so eloquently challenged and dissected the western construct of “Orientalism,” describes in an essay called “After Mahfouz” the ways in which “narrative prose fiction played a crucial role in creating a national consciousness” in Egypt and the Arab world, and how “Arabic novelists stood squarely wherever issues of destiny, society and direction were being debated or investigated.”

This weekend, I’ll be turning back to a few works of fiction and nonfiction born of Egypt, to tap into the deeper currents of last week’s events.

André Aciman, Out of Egypt: A Memoir
Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building
Naguib Mahfouz, Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, and Miramar
Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious
Edward Said, Reflections on Exile

Finally, I’ll take a sneak peek at “El Shooq,” the photo portfolio by noted musicologist and resident of Cairo, Kristina Nelson, which will appear in the CIIS literary magazine, Mission at Tenth, later this spring. The portfolio documents the shooting of the recently-released film “El Shooq” (Translated as “Lust”) by author and screenwriter Sayed Ragab – as well as compelling photos of Tahrir Square in the “Days of Hope.”

What books, images and other texts and works have moved you to think more deeply about Egypt and the Middle East?

———————
Carolyn Cooke is an Associate Professor in the Writing, Consciousness and Creative Inquiry MFA Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the author of the novel, Daughters of the Revolution, forthcoming in June from Alfred A. Knopf.